Mixing psychedelic beats with soulful vocals and hip-hop beats is no easy feat, unless you’re Phantogram, of course. The musical duo - comprised of Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel have produced an indie-pop sound a breed of its own, captivating audiences across America with their use of rising guitar melodies, eccentric keyboard progressions and quirky backbeats that just seem to work.
Joonbug had a chance to sit down with the Saratoga Springs artists at Bonnaroo Music Festival to hear all about the duo’s young formation, production processes and musical inspirations.
Jaime Sloane: Your name is super unique, how did you guys think of it? Why did you change your original name?
Josh Carter: Our original name was like a half-baked idea to begin with. We just started playing music and started playing shows and that’s all we had for a name. Once we realized we were reaching a broader audience outside of our home area we were like “Okay, maybe we should change it to something we actually like.”
So we were brainstorming one night trying to think of names and we were talking about ghost hands or maybe telegrams from another dimension and I said “Well what about Phantogram” and Sarah was like “That sounds cool” so we looked it up online and saw what a Phantogram was and we were like “Okay that’s cool” so we just stuck with that.
Jaime Sloane: Yeah I feel like just based on your name alone, someone who was unfamiliar with your music might be intrigued and come check out your show.
Sarah Barthel: Yeah we were happy to find a name we liked that wasn’t already taken. Cause we’d think of a cool name then go on Myspace and see that there was already another band with that name. That happened to us with like 30 bands. It took us a while, at least a solid month.
Jaime Sloane: How did the two of you come together musically?
Sarah Barthel: We’ve been friends for a really long time now. We grew up together practically, met about 15 years ago through my sister Becky who was friends with Josh. At that time we didn’t make any music together. We started working on music in 2007 after we met back up. I was in school, Josh was in New York working on a music project down here. And we met back up surprisingly on Christmas Eve at church. We saw each other and were like "Hey! I forgot about you! Whatsup?” And we just became friends again.
Josh was working on a bunch of solo stuff and let me listen to a lot of it and I instantly fell in love with the soothing sound he was creating with his production. He was nice enough to ask me if I wanted to sing on some of the songs and I was like “Yes of course! This is great! Let’s do it!” And it turned out great. We decided to start collaborating and playing shows locally, and not long after we decided to start writing records. We played about five shows and then went into the studio.
Josh Carter: It comes from everywhere, really. We listen to all kinds of music, whether it’s classical music, jazz, old french pop soundtrack music. We listen to top-40 radio, we listen to your standard huge bands that everyone loves like Radiohead and The Flaming Lips. We love Pink Floyd and The Beatles. I think a lot of what helped to shape our sound was extracting the things we like from certain bands and certain sounds and developing our own sound through that. Like the drone of My Bloody Valentine or Slowdive mixed with a hip-hop backbeat of J Dilla or A Tribe Called Quest.
I’ll call Sarah and say “Check out this jazz record” and if we like the saxophone line we’ll incorporate it in. That’s sort of how we work. We’re not really trying to go out of our way to do that per say, we just listen to so much music that that’s kind of how we work.
Jaime Sloane: How do you guys collaborate on your different tastes in sounds?
Josh Carter: We get together a lot and listen to music together. If the two of us hear something independently from each other, because that that happens often like I’ll come up with an idea at my apartment and Sarah will come up with an idea at her apartment, we’ll meet up at our rehearsal spot and just jam. Sarah will be like “Oh check out this idea I wrote on piano” or “Listen to this band, isn’t that a cool vibe?” and vice versa.
Jaime Sloane: Tell me a little about your music making process. What comes first, the lyrics or the melody? Which do you have more fun creating?
Josh Carter: It’s different every time. I guess the majority of the time I’ll make a beat, bring that in and we’ll work around it but it’s always different. Sometimes Sarah will write something on piano or I’ll write something on guitar, and Sarah plays guitar as well and I play piano as well. The majority of the time a lot of it comes with a strong rhythmic undercurrent.
Jaime Sloane: Talk to me about your progression from Eyelid Movies to Nightlife. How has your sound grown and changed?
Sarah Barthel: Eyelid Movies was done in 2008. We got it mastered, sent it in, we were ready to go. Then we sat on it for a while because we got all of this attention from the labels and they were like “Hold off on it, let us do our thing and release it in 2010.” We started writing in 2007, finished in 2008, it was done a long time ago.
We’ve evolved, grown a lot as a band. We never played any shows. We wrote the record and then played shows. When we were done, we went on tour and got all these different aspects of every song. After playing live we were like “We should’ve done this, we should’ve done that.” With all of the ideas we had dynamically and aesthetically, we were able to put into Nightlife. So you could kind of tell the difference, from where we evolved. It’s a lot heavier, a lot more dynamic for us, sad. Eyelid Movies is sad too but there’s definitely a lot more darkness and emotion.
Jaime Sloane: How did you guys feel before you walked on stage to perform in front of such a diverse crowd last night?
Sarah Barthel: We were kind of shitting our pants because our lights weren’t working. But it ended up being great. Once we got up there and started playing it was fine.
Josh Carter: We didn’t have the full production. Like Sarah said our lights weren’t working so we were kind of disappointed. But before any show it’s just a lot of excitement. It’s really exciting to get up on stage and see so many people that give a shit about your band. It’s just weird, we don’t make music thinking about fans. For some people, the only reason they start a band is because they want to see people adore them or get laid or whatever. But that’s not us. So getting up on stage and seeing all these people is like “Wow, we’re doing something interesting.”
Jaime Sloane: What’s been your favorite thing about Bonnaroo?
Josh Carter: The $7 beer.
Sarah Barthel: $7 beer, yeah!